It's just after noon on a Friday in Eugene, Oregon—sunny, not humid—and organist Barbara Baird is sounding out the first notes of Baroque composer Franz Tunder's characterful Preludium in G Minor. A genteel and mostly gray audience—it is a Friday afternoon, mid-summer, in a midsize college town after all—responds warmly to her incisive performance on the Moeller organ at First Congregational Church. The Oregon Bach Festival enters another day of music-making in its 38th season.
Since the advent of Tanglewood in Massachusetts' blissful Berkshires in the late 1930s, attending a local (or international) summer classical music festival in your choice of idyllic scenic locales has become de rigueur among a certain monied faction of classical music “fans.” Some attend these festivals for escape or vacation; some to taste wines or travel scenic drives. And some (believe it) come for the music.
I hadn't been to the Oregon Bach Festival since, as a student, I had taken part in a summer vocal program at the University of Oregon—that was more than a decade ago now. And then, prior to my conservatory music education, I didn't have a taste for the bite and sizzle that thrilling performances of Baroque music can provide. I remember this much of my experience way back when: I slept through most of Bach's B Minor Mass. And so, with a Portland musical colleague in tow, I ventured last Friday to Eugene in the heat of summer and certainly in the heat of the Bach Festival. If Eugene's fest is among the Northwest's largest for classical music, I thought to myself, then I've got to go again and see (hear) what all the buzz is about. And no snoozing this time.
I-5, Speeding Along
The idea was to drive down and back in about eight hours with my colleague to get a small—and inevitably not entirely representative—sampling of what has become, over 38 seasons, one of Oregon's most successful summer arts festivals. And to see if we could locate a bit of Bach's spirit.
Speeding along I-5 to Eugene, I popped in the first of several Bach CDs for our mutual consideration. It was Philipe Herreweghe's recording of the Bach “St. John Passion,” from 2003 on Harmonia Mundi. Broader tempos than the frenzied speeds so many of Herreweghe's contemporaries take with this music—movement for movement's sake. Instead of the opening “Herr, unser Herrscher” striking a note terror, it expanded into an awesome tidal wave of sound, wave over wave.
We tried a few movements of Robert Shaw's late 1980's take on the Bach “Magnificat” (Telarc), but dissolved into giggles at the mannered, bloodless playing and singing. Well-spoken without being articulate; everywhere accurate but rarely more than that. Dawn Upshaw was the sole redeeming force in a thoughtful “Quia respexit.” And so we moved to one of her CDs, Bach and Handel (“Angels Hide Their Faces,” Nonesuch), for a few minutes of sublime singing.
Taking this sort of musical tour (there were nearly a dozen CDs involved) seemed especially appropriate as we sped toward our destination that morning. We decided against listening to Festival artistic director Helmuth Rilling's recordings—and found out later, by coincidence, that neither of us in fact owned a single one of his.
And Now To… Marpurg?
Once in Eugene, it was straightaway to Baird's self-described organ program of “underdog composers:” contemporaries, predecessors and successors of J.S. Bach, including the only minutes of Bach heard that entire day (by August Wilhelm Bach, though not even a blood relation to the mighty J.S.) and some delicious chorale variations by later Baroque composer Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg. Though variations on chorale tunes were being written well before Bach took them up (to frequently glorious heights) and many other composers have since placed these gem-tunes in their own unique settings, Marpurg's jaunty and joyous variation on “Ein Feste Burg” grabbed me especially. Here's Baird's performance of it:
The afternoon brought the Festival's lecture-performance “Discovery Series” program at Eugene's Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Portland would be so lucky to have a venue like the Hult, which comprises a number of theatre and music venues under one downtown roof. The Soreng Theatre, where the “Discovery” programs took place, is the perfect example of a type of performance space Portland desperately needs: mid-sized, acoustically appealing, appropriate for everything from chamber opera to jazz. The idea behind the “Discovery” series is a simple and popular one in classical music programming today: let a performer (or conductor in this case) speak passionately about the music s/he is about to perform or conduct, provide insights and examples and “listening cues” for your audience. Give us something to listen for or some context or commentary that we wouldn't otherwise have on the works.
Here's some of what I heard on that Friday afternoon “Discovery Series” program, where Rilling offered thoughts on and excerpts from Joseph Haydn's “Theresa Mass.”
Rilling's an interesting man. More than 50 years ago he began his lifelong dedication to Bach study and conducting his works. With Royce Saltzman (recently retired as Executive Director of the Fest) in 1970 he came to Eugene and founded the Festival. A lot has happened in early music scholarship and performance practice in the 38 seasons since Rilling founded his worthy Festival; the way in which music from the Baroque and Classical periods is considered and interpreted has changed dramatically.
But Rilling, if his recordings and performances are to believed, has decided to stand staunchly behind his Old World thinking about this music. Some of this generation's most important scholars, conductors and performers continue to pass the Oregon Bach Festival by—almost the entire spate of players and singers in the Festival are Rilling protégés or frequent collaborators with the conductor. And until Rilling passes the baton to a dynamic new Artistic Director more in step with current scholarship and trends in performance practice—it's rumored to be happening in 3 to 5 years—the Oregon Bach Festival, while a valuable part of this musical community, will continue to be left behind.
I sat down for a few brief minutes with Rilling to discuss some of these things. Here are some of his thoughts. (Excuse my affirmative vocal interjections.)
Thoroughly exhausted, then, from a full day of music and food and sun and conversation, my colleague and I hopped back to his car and onto the highway. We put on some pop music (a CD from Portland singer-songwriter Holcombe Waller). And letting the wind and sun burst out with the explosive vocals on the car stereo, we enjoyed a little summer music festivaling of our own.